A former student of mine at Adrian College manages a fudge and ice cream shop in Western Michigan. He has been regaling his Facebook friends with colorful stories about customers who refuse to wear masks, then get nasty when asked to leave. Someone commented recently that Americans overdo on claims to liberty, neglecting our duty to act responsibly.
Victor Frankl, a famous psychiatrist and philosopher, once proposed erection of a Statue of Responsibility — perhaps on the West Coast — to complement the Statue of Liberty. Upon remembering this, I recently googled this proposal. I got 629,000 hits! There is even a foundation promoting the idea. This may be an idea whose time has come.
People often claim that masking requirements, whether by stores or by government, are an infringement on their liberty. Such requirements do indeed limit people's freedom. But we should call critics' attention to the awkward fact that civilized life is impossible without government and its laws, and that laws always limit our liberty.
As it is said, my freedom to swing my fist ends at the point where it comes into contact with your nose. Without laws, as political philosopher Thomas Hobbes described the "state of nature" nearly four centuries ago, no one is secure. Life is a war of all against all, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."
Worries about restrictions on freedom do have a point, though. We need government to protect us from abuse by our fellow human beings. But governments themselves can abuse us and we need protection from such abuses too.
As James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51:
"In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions."
Madison's "dependence on the people" refers to elections. But to avoid a "tyranny of the majority" the main "auxiliary precaution" must be constitutions which allow government to inflict sanctions (deprivations of life, liberty or property) only on people duly convicted of violating a general rule of action.
That means that laws — which always restrict freedom — must apply to everybody, not just to some people. Government must not be allowed to threaten sanctions against people for actions that the the governing few or their supporters remain free to do.
Intolerable rules are unlikely to be enacted if they have to apply to everybody.
Although cost-benefit analysis before we act is a good idea, it does not always help us avoid acting irresponsibly. People will usually act responsibly if the costs of their actions are born mainly by themselves. However if the benefits of an action accrue to the actor but its costs fall mainly on other people, the action may be terribly irresponsible. Economists call this an "externalized costs" problem.
Masks are a matter of "externalized benefits": I bear the costs — slight inconvenience — of wearing a mask, while the benefits are mainly to other people. But I in turn benefit from the masks they are wearing. As I have put it poetically:
You don't need to ask me to put on a mask,
I am happy to do so you see.
It's the least I can do,
for my mask protects you,
and yours in return protects me.
Taking other peoples' interests into account when we act reduces the need for laws. Those who would minimize legal restrictions on our freedom should weigh the interests of other people when making decisions.
A statue of responsibility could remind us to think about this.
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan oregon, and a number of other states. Read Prof. Paul F. deLespinasse's Reports — More Here.
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